Famous Once Again

Longfellow reaches his bicentennial; here’s why his poems became perennial

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In Evangeline, Longfellow created a character whose experiences were based on the expulsion of French-speaking Acadians from modern-day Nova Scotia by the British in 1755; inspired by the wanderings of Homer's Odysseus and Virgil's Aeneas, he gave an epic structure to a local theme. Similarly, Miles Standish and Hiawatha brought a human dimension to the lives of the continent's European settlers and its indigenous people—and let Longfellow achieve his goal of explaining America to Americans through poetry.

Moreover, he proved to be a shrewd manager of his literary properties. He insisted that inexpensive paperbacks be made readily available and that his poems be widely reproduced in newspapers and on posters. His image appeared on cigar boxes, beer bottle labels, inkwells, bookends, lithographic engravings, even fine china. His house became a tourist magnet; he kept a stack of autographed cards handy to distribute to the hundreds who came to call. "There is never an hour in the day, when someone is not pounding at the brass knocker of my door," he wrote in a letter to the poet Paul Hamilton Hayne, "never a moment when some unanswered letter is not beckoning to me with its pallid finger."

That grumbling notwithstanding, Longfellow scrupulously answered his mail, sometimes writing up to 20 responses a day. (More than 5,000 were gathered in six volumes published between 1966 and 1982.) He also knew the value of a fascinating new medium, photography: 12,000 images, including many of him and his family, are among the some 800,000 documents, household items, artworks and furnishings maintained by the National Park Service, custodian of his home, called Craigie House, since 1972, when his descendants turned it over to the nation.

Among luminaries to drop by over the years were Mark Twain, Julia Ward Howe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Anthony Trollope, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oscar Wilde and singer Jenny Lind; even Dom Pedro II, the emperor of Brazil, came calling. In 1867, Charles Dickens, the most famous novelist on either side of the Atlantic, spent Thanksgiving Day with Longfellow, renewing a friendship they had established 25 years earlier, when Dickens first visited the United States.

Dickens wrote in a letter to his son that Longfellow "is now white-haired and white-bearded, but remarkably handsome. He still lives in his old house, where his beautiful wife was burnt to death. I dined with him the other day, and could not get the terrific scene out of my imagination."

Dickens was referring to Fanny Longfellow's shocking death six years earlier, apparently after her dress was ignited by candle wax as she was sealing an envelope containing a snippet of hair from one of her six children. Longfellow's white beard hid scars from wounds he suffered while trying to smother the flames.

Longfellow and Dickens met again the following year, in England, where the American's whirlwind itinerary included stops at Oxford and Cambridge universities to receive honorary degrees, a stay at the home of Alfred Tennyson, breakfast with Prime Minister William Gladstone and tea at Windsor Castle with Queen Victoria.

"I noticed an unusual interest among the attendants and servants," Victoria later confided to her husband's biographer Theodore Martin. "When [Longfellow] took leave, they concealed themselves in places from which they could get a good look at him as he passed. I have since inquired among them, and am surprised...to find that many of his poems are familiar to them. No other distinguished person has come here that has excited so peculiar an interest."

After his death on March 24, 1882, at 75, dozens of memorials were erected throughout the United States. A national campaign was launched to fund a statue to be unveiled in Washington, D.C. In England, Longfellow became the first American to be honored with a marble bust in Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey. "Never had a poet been so widely loved," Charles Eliot Norton declared in an essay that commemorated the centennial of Longfellow's birth, "never was the death of a poet so widely mourned."

Widely, but not forever. Longfellow seems to have understood the vicissitudes of fame as well as anyone. His first book of consequence, the travelogue Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Seas, concluded with a prophetic riff: "Dost thou covet fame?" he asked. "This little book is but a bubble on the stream; and although it may catch the sunshine for a moment, yet it will soon float down the swift-rushing current, and be seen no more!"


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